Mar, 2013 | Publications

Tradition and custom is something that binds the past with the present and respect for tradition and habit means respect for our ancestors. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are not only leaves on our genealogical tree. Even we were not lucky enough to meet them personally, what we are or have now, we mostly owe to them. They were real characters with similar emotions, problems and moments of happiness like we have nowadays. They came to America looking for new, better life. Preserving their traditions and customs in new country they felt more at home. Some of their customs are still alive, others live only in our memory, and some had been forgotten. Knowing the culture of our ancestors, their believes and day-to-day living helps to make our children being proud of their Polish roots.
Customs and beliefs are always a mixture of traditions, observations, and experiences, flavored with a bit of magic. All that is to make us happy and joyful and better solve any possible problems we may have. The most important traditions are related to the life circle. Birth and Death make a single couple with a wedding ceremony in-between if the life is to be preserved. All customs include the symbols bearing deep knowledge and understanding of natural principles ruling our life.

Pregnancy – women always get pregnant in the same way, the way it was the way it is. If we had an opportunity to peek inside our grandmothers’ bedrooms, we would have to verify our beliefs about the supposed monotony that we think characterized this area of our ancestors’ lives. Our ancestors represented more temper and straightforward attitude. The reason might have been related to their limited intellectual activities which have been proved to be weakening the vitality. In spite of Reverend’s advises on decent intercourse and the threat of eternal hell for a kiss on a ‘wrong’ spot, the natural passions were hard to control. Pregnancy case in the family was the message of favour from God. First miscarriage was considered to be the punishment for sins and a shame for the woman. Husband was the first to learn about the pregnancy, then parents and parents in law. Distant relatives and neighbours could be informed only when it was hard to hide. The pregnant women had to observe many Dos and Don’ts. For example it was a bad practice to watch disabled, ginger-haired or squinters, the baby could have been born having similar physical defect (ginger hair were considered abnormal and ugly). She was forbidden to watch rabbits to avoid hare lip in newly born. Seeing a mouse, the women couldn’t have made a gesture of holding her belly, that could have resulted in developing hairy spot on baby’s body. Being in close distance to fighting men could have resulted in baby becoming a bad boy. Going out for dances or drinking during pregnancy could have resulted in a wind-bag or a drunkard being born. Heavy meal for supper could have resulted in hard delivery. Peering through the key hole could have resulted in squinting, bending and peering back between legs might have resulted in developing so called ‘bad eye’, meaning witchcraft. To ensure umbilical cord not to get entangled around baby’s neck during delivery, pregnant women were to avoid hanging out washing or wearing necklaces. Pregnant woman was very fragile to witchcraft and could not go beyond the borders of her household after sunset as witches were believed to operate mostly at night. Of course there were remedies in case the spell could not have been avoided. It was good thing to sow into a garment the lives of sage, which was believed to be helpful or to carry scissors or a knife, as those were known to be fearful for witches. What if poor thing happened to watch something dirty or become a victim of witchcraft? There were many ways of taking off the bad spells but the simplest and the most effective was to spit three times over the left shoulder and pronounce the following saying: ‘pish, pish, pish touch wood’, which was directing the spell towards a wood. Many habits on such occasion had to be observed by others in respect of pregnant woman: – it was considered bad to deny anything to such woman (which could have resulted in developing a babbitt (a tangle), the result of bad behaviour, not a dirty life), – denial to lend anything could have resulted in total loss. The women should have been forgiven any wrongdoings, her husband should have paid her compliments. The latest is still missing in our XXI century.

Delivery and baptism – women delivered babies at home with the only help of midwife called „Granny”. Under the pillow of the delivery bed placed were the things like ordained herbs and a knife or an ax, while broom and ordained wreath of herbs used to be hanged on the door to keep any evil spirits away from the place. The midwife made a gesture of holy cross over the woman’s belly and called upon St. Catherine, St. Dorothy, St. Barbara and St. Margaret, to help in the delivery. The first washing of new baby had to be held in the bowl basin which was used for making dough, this was to provide for good growth while the water was not to be too warm to prevent the baby becoming nervous. Newly born baby was believed to be very fragile to bad spirits, so again ordained herbs were put under baby’s pillow and its cradle was decorated with the red ribbon. Red ribbons can be seen nowadays on most of baby’s strollers in Poland. If mother started feeding her baby with the right tit, the baby was expected to grow right-handed. Next, the most important day after the delivery was the baptism day. Mother did not participate in the ceremony and was not admitted to the church as considered unclean until the „wywód” time, meaning the special ceremony of cleansing. After the baptism all participants were taken to an inn to celebrate the day with a lavish food and substantial amounts of alcohol. Many stories tell of the babies being left in an inn or lost on the way back home, but they all had the happy end. During the baptism the baby was given a name. The name was chosen by parents but along certain rules: – first baby was given the name after his/her parents or grandparents. This gives a hard time to modern genealogists. The baby was given the name it ‘brought’ with itself, namely the name of relevant patron worshipped on the day of birth according to the Church Calendar, if parents objected to such name, they could pick another one but still that was to be the name of a Saint worshiped on the day following shortly the delivery. Sometimes the Reverend enforced his choice, particularly nasty in case of illegitimate child, to stigmatize it. The patronage calendar has evolved over the years. At https://genoroots.com/first-names-and-naming-customs/ you can read more about names giving customs and find out, if your ancestors were given names they ‘brought’.

Wedding – marriage was arranged by parents and was to secure financial provisions. Of course, sometimes the parental choice was not accepted by a Bride or a Groom. Prior to the wedding a Groom was expected to offer an engagement ring, while his beloved was expected to reciprocate with something she made herself, like embroidered handkerchief.. Prior to going to the wedding ceremony held in church, parents blessed the young couple with best wishes and giving some advices supposed to be useful in adult life. The custom have been preserved to these days and is very important part of a wedding. The young couple were entering the church at the end of procession, but leaving it as the first. At the Altar, Bride could not forget to step on Groom’s foot which was to ensure her domination in the relationship. The wedding party was always to be held in bride’s house. Parents welcomed the married couple with salt and bread and then the party went on until the dawn. On having some rest, the party started again the next day, which was considered the second day of the wedding. During the first day party, the ‘oczepiny’ was an act of decorating the wife with a midwife’s Cap. The tradition is still observed today, however in slightly different form. ‘Oczepiny’ symbolizes the transition from the state of being single to the state of being married. At midnight the wreath was removed from the bride’s head, the bride’s hair was cut, and the cap worn by married women was put on the bride’s head. The ceremony was accompanied with singing and joking, where the Bride pretended to run away from unwanted decoration as if she wanted to come back to her carefree life of the single and run away from the responsibilities of her marriage. When she finally accepted her cap and the new role, the wedding pie was brought in which was named ‘kołacz’. The Wedding Marshal responsible for the arrangements cut the kołacz offering the first pieces to the married.

Death – after more or less happy life there was a time for dying and saying farewell to the earthly life. In the past times, the death was seen as something very natural and was humbly accepted. Only sudden and unexpected death was feared of. Wolf howling, pulling a chain by a chained dog, hooting of owls or making hills by earth moles predicted a death of one of the family member. Similar prediction carried the pictures falling from walls, broken see-glass or withered tree by the house. In case of young tree it was particularly dreadful, meaning the death of a child. People used to die in their own houses, surrounded by their families. The Death was depicted as the skeleton with a scythe. The scythe was to cut the cord between soul with body. It was believed that by moving the bed of dying person from place to place the dying could have been postponed as it was more difficult for the Death to hit the cord with the scythe. The most important sacrament was believed to be the sacrament of anointment of the sick. There were cases that people were healed with their strong faith. However in case of a real death it was not accepted to raise the loud jeremiads, to allow the soul going away in peace. Opened windows were to enable its easier departure, help to find the way and prevent it from staying at home. The windows were later closed to disable the soul to return. The eyes of dying person were to be firmly closed to avoid his look which could mean taking someone along. All see-glasses were covered, seeing the dead body doubled could result in sure death. The body stayed in the house for 3 days where people came to say good bye and pray for the soul of the dead. The coffin was arranged with feet towards the exit door. Some people when arranging their bedrooms nowadays take care to avoid setting their beds with feet towards exit as this kind of arrangement is reserved only for the dead. It was also the custom, while carrying the coffin out, to knock with it three times on the doorstep. This was supposed to symbolize the last good bye to the house and had a practical meaning of the final attempt to wake the dead up, excluding the cases of near-death. The history provides many examples of the exhumations, in which the coffin interior showed the signs of scratches and the bodies were placed in an unnatural position. There were also cases that tomb robbers waken the near-death cases trying to rob them and paradoxically saved them in this way, which was almost at the cost of their own death suffered from possible heart-attack. Towards the XIX century designed was the special signalization system featuring the bell ready to be used by the dead in case of near-death wakeup. After the funeral, always the mourning party took place, where it was unaccepted to speak bad things about the dead. Such practice is still valid.
Life went on, people turned back to their duties, new babies were born. Life made the full circle.

Aleksandra Kacprzak